New therapeutic mental imagery methods in the 1960s and ‘70s: the humanistic school

Humanistic therapies draw upon a wide repertoire of imagery procedures and techniques, many of which were originally developed during the 1960s and ‘70s. In general, this approach to imagery highlights the creative potential of the client’s images and the use of imagery as a means of bypassing the censorship of the conscious personality. Of course, this is a very broad church and includes a wide range of approaches that have all contributed particular methods to the repertoire. One example of this range would be the influential humanistic-transpersonal model of psychosynthesis founded by Assagioli (1888-1974). He (Assagioli, 1965) noted that imagery is particularly beneficial because of its capacity to tap into many aspects of the total personality and integrate different levels of sensation, emotion, cognition and intuition. A particularly influential member of this school with regard to mental imagery is Ferrucci (2009) whose seminal text, What We May Be, helped to propagate the use of visualisation in the wider humanistic field. Even humanistic schools such as the person-centred approach with its inherent distrust of techniques have generated contributions to this repertoire; one example being Gendlin’s (1981) ‘focusing’ method where the therapist helps the client use mental images to first concretise and then gain more insight into vague undifferentiated bodily sensations.

Despite the range of theory and practice across the humanistic schools, it is possible to make some general observations as to its use of mental imagery. Similarly to the Jungian school, the focus in humanistic approaches is on the manifest content of the mental image not its theorised latent content. Alongside this is also a belief that it is the client, and not the therapist, who is best placed to interpret the imagery.

However, there are some subtle differences. In general, humanistic therapies (with the exception of psychosynthesis) are less concerned with structural models of self and the unconscious and are more interested in finding ways to unfold human potential. Imagery is viewed as one of a range of creative modes for achieving that goal. Thus, there is more focus on developing methods and a more interactive approach to the use of mental images. Although Jung’s understanding of the therapeutic application of mental imagery developed in a very different way to Freud, they shared one thing in common: their interest lay solely in clients’ mental images as meaningful communications from the unconscious. In other words, their interest was restricted to receptive imagery. Although humanistic therapies draw heavily on Jung’s work, a more active approach is taken to the therapeutic use of imagery and this has resulted in a large body of techniques and procedures. Helping clients make sense of their mental images represents just one aspect of this work. Methods have been developed for helping clients actively interact with their imagery productions. Instead of waiting for communications to arise spontaneously in the form of dreams and fantasy, guided imagery techniques have been developed that are designed for a more directive investigation of the unconscious mind.

Of all the humanistic approaches, it is probably gestalt therapy that has contributed the most to this more dynamic and interactive use. Its founder, Perls (1893-1970), was particularly opposed to, what he considered to be, the over-intellectualisation evident in psychoanalysis, and consequently one of the main aims of his therapeutic approach is to bypass the client’s conscious thinking processes. In gestalt therapy, clients are encouraged to express the image creatively using all the senses in order to allow its meaning to be grasped. Although Perls made creative use of client images that arose spontaneously during the session, he had a particular interest in working with dream imagery. He developed an identification technique whereby clients are instructed to experience themselves as elements of their dream. He believed that re-experiencing the dream in this way is a much more effective therapeutic process than relying on intellectual interpretations; explaining his method as follows in his characteristically direct way:

You see how you can use everything in a dream. If you are pursued by an ogre in a dream, and you become the ogre, the nightmare disappears. You re-own the energy that is invested in the demon. Then the power of the ogre is no longer outside, alienated, but inside where you can use it. (italics in original)

(Perls, 1992: 189)

Probably his most well-known mental imagery technique is his two-chair procedure. This is a dynamic technique whereby clients are facilitated in dialoguing with imaginal representations in an empty chair; these could include aspects of themselves, dream elements and representations of real people. The therapist encourages the client to conduct a dialogue both from the client’s own position and also from the position of the represented figure or element. Perls believed, as the previous quote makes clear, that the process of thoroughly identifying with these projected elements or aspects would lead to insight and integration. Although, it is fair to say that Perls’s reputation has suffered in recent years - his clinical approach has been criticised as overly directive - there can be no disputing his positive legacy with regard to a body of innovative and creative mental imagery methods. His empty chair technique is just one example of his original methods that remain standard in the humanistic repertoire (interested readers can read verbatim extracts from his work [Perls, 1992] using this technique in a series of seminars delivered in the Esalen Institute from 1966-1968).

By the end of the 1980s, the enthusiasm with which the humanistic schools had embraced mental imagery was starting to fade. The relational turn in counselling and psychotherapy was gathering momentum and interest was moving away from the subjective world of the client to the intersubjectively constructed nature of therapy. However, this is not the end of the story of the development of mental imagery within the main therapeutic schools in therapy, by any means. Another school with a radically different approach was beginning to investigate mental images as a means of working with a range of challenging clinical presentations. And I shall pick up this narrative later on at the end of the chapter when I consider contemporary developments in theory and practice.

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